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Wednesday, 19 May 2010 11:32

The Black Rep's Art misses the mark

Written by Sheila R. Schultz
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The Black Rep's Art misses the mark
Image courtesy of the Black Rep.

In the late 1800s, a Swiss boy named Hermann Rorschach became fascinated by inkblot designs. His father, an art teacher, nurtured his son's artistic talent, but Hermann chose to become a psychiatrist. Merging art with science, he developed a ground-breaking psychometric test employing a variety of inkblots, each of which served as a kind of psychological x-ray.

Test subjects were asked to describe what each inkblot represented. Responses "“ which varied widely from one individual to the next - were interpreted to evaluate the personality and emotional functioning of each subject. For decades after its creation, the Rorschach inkblot test remained a popular tool for psychological assessment in this country.

For her Tony Award-winning drama, Art, playwright Yasmina Reza created the ultimate Rorschach test for three Parisian characters: Marc, Serge and Yvan. Serge (Ron Himes) is a dermatologist who fancies himself an art connoisseur. He drops terms like "deconstruction" into polite conversation. The man splurges 200,000 francs on a 4' x 5' white-on-white painting by a trendy artist named Antrios. Serge is "comfortably off, but he's hardly rolling in money." The painting, unsullied by the artist's signature, appears "¦ well, stark white. To Serge, it represents the pinnacle of modern art. At least, that's the view he stubbornly maintains.

To his friend Marc (Tim Schall), the painting is an insanely exorbitant "piece of shit". He becomes unglued by Serge's new indulgence which "ingeniously eliminated form and color". For Marc, Serge's acquisition of the white painting signifies an alarming deterioration of judgment in his friend of 15 years. Marc is an aeronautical engineer, an intellectual, but hardly in control of his feelings. He knows he overreacts at times, but can't stop himself. The two friends become embroiled in conflict fueled mostly by false pride.

Their mutual friend, Yvan (Robert A. Mitchell), attempts to act as referee, with little success. As to his own opinion of the painting, Yvan generally lacks the confidence and courage to determine his own convictions. A people pleaser, he is caught in the middle of Serge and Marc's emotional tug-of-war over the painting. Serge and Marc each try to win Yvan over, but Yvan is unhappily trapped in a no-win situation.

Art is high concept drama that can be reduced to a succinctly stated premise. Its premise: the perception of art is subjective. No startling revelation there! The painting becomes a catalyst for squabbles to malicious personal attacks laden with sarcasm and vitriol. Old wounds are stripped open; new insults are hurled. Words, words, words. Art is unencumbered by complex character development. The escalating rancor reveals more about the arrested maturity of the characters than the painting itself. The salient messages of the play are delivered within the first 15 minutes. Reza grinds the point home for an hour and a half. I want to scream, "We get it, already!"

The story progresses at a snail's pace. Art is a talky play with minimal action. The "show, don't tell" rule is flouted. There is a belated dramatic payoff at the end, but it's hardly worth the wait. The dialogue is not filled with sparkling wit, although the script's translation from French to English may be partially responsible. For me, it is an excruciating evening of theatre. The prolonged scenes of unrelenting yelling, taunting and screaming turn me off entirely. I tune out.

Schall is the most credible performer. His timing, subtlety and inflection are no surprise, given his extensive training and experience as a professional singer. Even Schall cannot rescue scenes dominated by Himes, who is incapable of conveying anger with any nuance. Himes demonstrates the belief that whoever screams loudest wins. And scream he does, far too early in the play, painting himself into a corner. There's nowhere for his rage to grow, so his shrieking continues unabated throughout a climactic scene which seems to last 45 minutes. It's exhausting. Director Andrea Frye fails to modulate this runaway scene.

Mitchell's character is wishy-washy by design. The actor provides much of the humor. Mitchell is the most physical actor, but his role is secondary. Without Yvan, the play would simply be a shouting match. With Yvan, the play is simply a shouting match with an extraneous subplot "“ Yvan's disastrous impending marriage. His long-winded rant on the subject is another example of Reza's excess. Yvan is easily manipulated by the women in this life. "We get it, already!" Stop kvetching!

Contemporary playwrights like David Mamet are masters at creating minimal dialogue with maximum impact. The technique demands more than meticulous word choice, although that is imperative. It requires a suspenseful story with complex, compelling characters whom we care about. We needn't like every character, but we must have an emotional investment in the characters' outcome. It's true that Mamet is at the top of his game, so my comparison may be unfair, but the dramatic elements still apply. Those elements are sorely lacking in Art.

In terms of suspense, the questions are: who will win the argument over the value of the Antrios painting and how will the result affect the friendships? Both Serge and Marc are such stubborn and obnoxious characters, I don't care what happens either one. Yvan is so indecisive, it hardly matters. He does possess more objectivity than Serge or Marc. Yvan poses the question, "Why do we see each other if we hate each other?" Why indeed? Why should the audience care about the preservation of dysfunctional relationships based on carping, one-upmanship, and other infantile behavior?

The entertainment value of this play escapes me. It seems pretentious, boring and pointless. A production note: while the play is set in Paris, there is nothing remotely French about this production. One black beret does not a Frenchman make. Artruns through runs through May 23, 2010 at the Grandel Theatre, located at 3610 Grandel Square. For information, call 314-534-3810 or visit The Black Rep.org.

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